Campaign launched for repeal of anti-abortion laws

By Kathy Newnam

A protest campaign has been launched in Brisbane against the charges bought against a young couple in Cairns under the anti-abortion provisions in the Queensland Criminal Code. The campaign was launched on May 9 when 80 people protested against an anti-abortion demonstration, blocking the anti-abortionists’ way to the state parliament building. The campaign, organised by the Pro-Choice Action Collective, is demanding an immediate dropping of the charges and the repeal of all anti-abortion laws.

A young Cairns woman was charged in April under section 225 of the Criminal Code, which criminalises “unlawful” abortion. The charge carries a prison sentence of up to seven years. Her partner was charged under section 226, which criminalises anyone who assists an unlawful abortion. This charge carries a prison sentence of up to three years. It is at least 50 years since anyone was prosecuted under these laws. In 1986, charges were bought against two doctors under section 224, which criminalises anyone carrying out an unlawful abortion. This “crime” carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

Gains won by feminist movement

The court in this historic case found the doctors not guilty. As in similar cases in Victoria and NSW in the 1980s, this ruling liberalised the interpretation of the law, providing a legal precedent for “lawful” abortion. This partial victory was in large part a result of the pressure of the women’s liberation movement — the repeal of anti-abortion laws was a central demand of this movement during its upsurge in the 1970s and 80s. The movement had already played a role in staying the hand of Queensland government against enforcing the anti-abortion laws. For example, the Greenslopes Fertility Control Clinic, in southeast Brisbane, which was set up by Doctor Bayliss (one of the doctors charged in 1986), has operated openly since 1976. Similar situations existed in other states.

However, all of these clinics operated under extreme political pressure. In May 1985, for example, the Queensland government ordered a raid on the Greenslopes clinic, with the police interrogating women in the clinic and taking and copying 20,000 patient files. This raid was found to be illegal by the Supreme Court after which Director of Public Prosecutions Des Sturgess made a public appeal for women to come forward with any complaints against the clinic. A complaint was made, leading to charges being bought against the clinic’s two doctors. The ruling on their case has allowed for limited access to legal abortion, though the ruling was explicit in not recognising “abortion on demand”. Rather, it found that abortion was legal only if a woman’s life was at risk from continuing the pregnancy. Actual practice is already far more liberal than this. For example, in Queensland in 2008 there were 11,000 abortions.

Many women are not even aware that abortion is still a criminal offence. According to media reports, this was the case for the Cairns couple who have been charged under the laws. This lack of awareness is in large part due to the decline of the women’s liberation movement and the resulting decline in the sort of widespread education campaigns that took place during the upsurge of the movement two decades ago. It was these campaigns and the street protests that were a hallmark of this movement that won overwhelming public support for a woman’s right to abortion. The 2003 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, conducted by the Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research, found that more than 80% of respondents supported a woman’s right to choose abortion.

These gains are constantly under threat — and not only from the religiously motivated anti-abortion groups. These groups are nothing but the shock troops for the anti-woman agenda of capitalism — a system that profits from the oppression of women. The capitalist system relies on the unpaid domestic work done by women. This requires imprisoning women within the family institution. The family unit is the basic economic unit of consumption and reproduction of the labour force for the capitalist class. It is defended with the idea that every woman’s primary role in capitalist society is as a mother and carer. The idea that every woman should have a right to abort a pregnancy, and thus be liberated from being prisoners of their reproductive organs, runs counter to this ideological straightjacket.

The Labor Party, just like the Liberals, support capitalism and the family unit as the best “welfare” system within the capitalist system. This is why it is a dead-end strategy to rely lobbying the “centre-left” ALP to advance women’s rights. But this has been the political course of a significant number of women’s liberationists over the last two decades. It is a strategy that has led to the demobilisation of the movement for women’s liberation. But while it is a dead-end for the majority of women, this strategy has certainly paid off for many “sisters in suits” enabling them to pursue comfortable career paths in the ALP. Current Queensland Labor Premier Anna Bligh, a former feminist campaigner, is only the most high-profile of these “sisters in suits”.

Reform v repeal

For decades the ALP and its feminist supporters have held back the struggle for complete decriminalisation of abortion in Queensland through assurances that the anti-abortion laws were a dead letter. Unsurprisingly, the Cairns charges have been met by deafening silence by the very same ALP politicians who made these assurances for years. Now the pro-Labor feminists are falling short of demanding the immediate repeal of the laws, calling instead for the Bligh government to refer the laws to the Law Reform Commission. This demand is of significance because it implies that the reform of the existing laws is sufficient. It isn’t. Supporters of women’s right to abortion should demand nothing less that the complete repeal of all anti-abortion laws. Abortion is a basic medical procedure and it should be treated as such in law. This is what women’s liberationists have argued for decades and there is no room for compromise on it.

Furthermore, the legislative “reform process” does not always go in favour of women’s rights. For example, there were changes to the abortion laws in Western Australia in 1999, ostensibly initiated in favour of abortion rights by then ALP MP Cheryl Davenport. While clarifying the law, these changes actually increased restrictions on abortion.

Abortion was decriminalised in the ACT in 2002 and in Victoria in 2008, though in both jurisdictions there are still legal restrictions placed upon a women’s right to have the procedure. In Victoria, a woman requires the approval of two doctors to have an abortion after 24 weeks of gestation. Thus, even where the anti-abortion laws have been repealed, the struggle to have it made a woman’s right to choose is far from over. The costs of abortion still restrict access for many working-class women. There are also the moral restrictions — the social “guilt-trip” that women are subjected to face if they choose abortion.

The strategy of law reform shifts the focus of the movement for women’s liberation into back-room wheeling and dealing between capitalist politicians and abortion rights lobbyists. It allows for compromises to be made by such lobbyists on behalf of the vast majority of women — compromises that they have no right or authority to make. It is only through the mass women’s liberation movement that limited access to abortion was won and it is only through mobilising the widespread public support for women’s right to abortion through public rallies and marches that these partial gains can be defended and extended.

The charges bought against the young couple in Cairns highlights the urgency of rebuilding such a movement. This cannot be seen as an isolated case. Already these charges represent a victory for the anti-abortion campaigners by creating the “scare” that the anti-abortion laws can and will be used. If the charges are upheld it will mark the most serious setback for abortion access in decades. There is no room for complacency. There are significant forces that will use the opening provided by the Cairns case to seek a complete ban on abortion. They want to see the clock turned back to the days of backyard abortions when medically unsafe terminations were the second highest cause of maternal death in Australia. The charges against the Cairns couple must be dropped.

[The next Brisbane abortion rights rally will be held at 5pm on June 10 in Brisbane Square (top of Queen Street mall). For more information about the campaign and further protest actions, phone Kathy on 0400 720 757 or email]